Friday, February 17, 2006

Book Review: Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend


You may very well ask.

Anna May Wong was the first Chinese-American film star. Her career spanned the silents through Technicolor and talkies to television. She co-starred with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. in The thief of Baghdad, a major talkie. She was passed over for a major role in The Good Earth in favor of a European actress. She left Hollywood for Europe in the 1930's because the only roles she was allowed to play were "Dragon Lady" type roles. She learned to speak French, German, and Mandarin--as an adult.

Ms. Wong was caught between being "too Chinese" for Hollywood and "not Chinese enough" for China.

She was gracious and elegant. She worked hard and played hard. She had a dramatic sense of style, but saved and invested wisely. She lived at home, behind her father's laundry in Los Angeles (where she was born) and kept the books for him long into her adulthood.

Her youngest brother, Richard, will not cooperate with researchers looking to write or film a documentary about her, so Anna May Wong remains further in obscurity.

Someday, someone will write a biography of Ms. Wong that is as fascinating as she is. Unfortunately, this one, by Graham Russell Gao Hodges, is not it. His prose is turgid and repetitive. Anyone who is old enough to remember the furor surrounding William Shatner and Nichelle Nichol's almost-kiss in Star Trek understands that Hollywood is racist and conservative--at least when it comes to casting. Do we need to hear it repeated on nearly every page?

His sentence structure is choppy and he repeats phrases within paragraphs (a pet peeve of mine). Mr. Hodges jumps from recapping the plots of Anna May's performances to personal details of her life. In his Acknowledgments, he thanks a number of people who read the manuscript and his editors. If, in fact, they did their job, I'd hate to see what the first draft was like.

On the March Hare scale: 3 bookmarks out of 5 for subject matter. 1 bookmark out of 5 for style.